Beef Goes Upscale

Can the small-batch foodie revolution transform the red meat market?


At the Belcampo Meat Company in Larkspur, California, the primary merchandise is presented almost as fetishistically as the iPhones at an Apple store. Sirloin tip cutlets, whole rabbits, Chateaubriands, and a dozen or so other varieties of raw meat rest on white platters lined with brown butcher paper. Lemons and bundles of rosemary serve as understated but striking visual sidekicks. The intended effect: plenitude, judiciously curated.

In the meat department of the average supermarket, by contrast, plastic-wrapped packs of econo-beef are herded onto crowded shelves, pressed up indiscriminately against giant value-sacks of boneless chicken. It's cruel and unappetizing. But at Belcampo, the tenderloin filets have room to roam.

In addition to Belcampo's Larkspur location, which includes a casual restaurant along with the meat boutique, the company operates its own farm and slaughterhouse about 300 miles to the north, near the Oregon border. There, on rolling grasslands with a view of Mt. Shasta, future cutlets and filets grow to certified organic maturity in an environment that sounds nearly as nurturing as a top-flight preschool. "We practice low-stress animal handling techniques, respecting each species' innate mental and emotional characteristics," Belcampo's website advises. "We pay special attention to each breed's ability to thrive in Northern California, creating homes for our swine and poultry that allow them to be both comfortable and stimulated."

Belcampo, in other words, is a carefully crafted antidote to meat's image as a highly industrialized foodstuff with no provenance whatsoever, a.k.a. pink slime. It owns and operates every link in its production chain and thus can exercise maximum control over its processes and ensure customers maximum transparency as it aims to deliver pink prime—healthier, kindlier, more sustainable meat. 

Respecting the innate mental and emotional characteristics of the highly sensitive Northern California consumer, Belcampo regularly trucks in its farmers to Larkspur for lunchtime eat-and-greets, where they are subjected to intensive but ostensibly humane grilling from ethical carnivores hungry for a deeper connection to their burgers. 

Such tactics are hardly novel at this point, at least in Marin County. What distinguishes Belcampo is the seamlessness and ambitious reach of its vision. Founder Anya Fernald, a veteran foodie who has worked as a baker, chef, and cheesemaker and spent four years at Italy's Slow Food International, wants to take ethical and sustainable animal husbandry beyond farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs, to make it as mainstream as McDonald's (if not quite so widespread). Over the next six months, Fernald plans to open five more retail outlets throughout California. 

"Right now, 80 percent of my target consumers are shopping in mainstream channels," she says. "Our business is about making it easier and easier for someone to switch from Costco to our store."

The location of Belcampo's initial Larkspur outlet clearly reflects this ambition—it's set in an outdoor shopping mall, in close proximity to a Bed, Bath & Beyond. But this progressive ideal does not come cheaply. At Belcampo's butcher shop, the tenderloin filet goes for $39 per pound—roughly $32 more per pound than what USDA Choice sirloin steak averages in U.S. supermarkets, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates for April 2013.

For most of the 20th century a juicy steak represented a more populist ideal. Just as surely as a Cadillac in the driveway and a pool in the backyard, it embodied increasingly widespread prosperity. It was a luxury, yes, but it was egalitarian and broadly accessible, the fat of the land commoditized for easy, generic purchase in supermarkets everywhere. Beef required no great expertise to prepare. It demanded no sophisticated connoisseurship to fully appreciate.

It was a meal fit for suburban kings, and for a while there our appetite for the stuff was as insatiable as our demand for gasoline and television. In 1952, annual beef consumption per capita was 61.2 pounds. By 1975, it had reached 88.5 pounds. In 1976—helped in part, no doubt, by millions of bicentennial barbecues—beef consumption hit its highest level ever, at 94.4 pounds.

But that was it, peak sirloin. In 2012, we ate only 57.3 pounds of beef per person. By 2014, forecasters suggest, we're likely to be down to 53 pounds.

What happened? In part, beef consumption is driven by beef supply, and for various reasons supply went down. Today, beef industry pundits attribute slumping sales to higher production costs, growing exports, and drought, among other factors.

But consumer preferences clearly shifted as well. In 1976, obesity rates were starting their rapid ascent, but we were also beginning to pay considerable attention to our cholesterol counts. Cheaper alternatives such as chicken and pork claimed a larger share of the market. Add E. coli outbreaks, mad cow disease, and a growing awareness over the ethical ramifications and environmental consequences of factory farming, and eventually the industry faced a massive marketing challenge. 

In the heyday of the American steak, innovations in production and distribution drove the beef industry. It developed ways to grow cattle faster and increase meat yields per animal. It streamlined supply chains by shifting slaughterhouse operations from urban centers to rural locations nearer to feedlots. Most of the branding the industry did, however, involved a red-hot iron. 

At precisely the same time Americans started losing their appetite for beef, they started expressing an interest in connoisseurship, novelty, authenticity, exclusivity. A nation raised on iceberg lettuce and Budweiser acquired a taste for arugula and Carneros District Cabernets. Beef desperately needed a new story, and yet for the most part, beef stayed beef: abundant, uniform, a stubborn holdover from an era when TVs had a dozen channels and potato chips came in one flavor.

In recent years, the four packers that dominate the industry have attempted to create more proprietary marketing for their products, especially for Angus beef, the one breed that has achieved what might be called varietal status. In general, though, beef has yet to shake its mass-market past.

That's a bit surprising, because in many ways beef should be the ultimate artisanal heritage product. It's rustic. It's bound in leather. Bearded people are frequently involved in its production. And yet instead of embracing ways to make cow meat more exclusive and tasteful, the beef industry mostly wants to keep it cheap and plentiful. "We can't let beef turn into lobster," Ed Greiman, president of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, lamented to the Des Moines Register in February.

Enter Belcampo. "The style of production that I'm committed to, from an ethical and environmental perspective, is definitely the most expensive style of production out there," Fernald says. "But doing the right thing for the animals also yields a higher taste quality."

This is a point of contention. The grain-based finishing diets that cattle eat in feedlots is what gives today's beef its marbled texture and tender juiciness, and this, many traditionalists insist, is what consumers want (even as they buy less and less beef). 

In contrast, pastured, grass-fed beef is sometimes described as gamey. "We've been taught to think of meat as the tofu of the land," Fernald counters. "It's a flavorless substrate for satay sauce or teriyaki marinade. The only beef we eat straight up is steak, and even it's got butter on it, or steak sauce. At Belcampo, we're trying to get people to rediscover the flavor of meat. Our beef is very flavor-forward."

Not so long ago, the beer aisles of America's supermarkets were filled with little more than a handful of bland, homogenous brands. The same was true of the bread aisles. Then brewers and bakers began making declarations similar to Fernald's. Beer could be more flavorful. Bread could be healthier and more complex. Over time, as America's consumers developed easier and more widespread access to cream stouts and sprouted whole grain breads, they embraced these options. Their expectations grew. 

Today's most demanding shoppers don't just want tasty food. They want tasteful food. Jam that's so beautiful it's worthy of an Instagram close-up. Politically enlightened pickles. Statement broccoli that serves as a medium for self-expression as well as sustenance. 

Belcampo charges more for its beef (in some cases, a lot more). But it also expands consumer options in new and intriguing ways. If you're in the mood for a burger topped with environmental sustainability and ethical slaughter, there is now a place at the mall where you can have it your way.